There is a young girl, Chinmayee, in Nisha Pahuja’s `The World Before Her‘, who speaks (both in english and hindi) with utmost clarity and a twinkle in her eyes. She oozes confidence, her language reflects her conviction. I watched her in awe as she talked, not bothered in the least by the camera, at an age when I could barely manage to utter my name on camera without stuttering. However after a moment as I start paying attention to what she is saying, I realize how deep and how early the seeds of prejudice are sown. Chinmayee explains how she had a couple of muslim friends while growing up but now she knows better. She asserts the need to preserve our cultural heritage (from muslims and christians). A culture that apparently needs to be restored and preserved by teaching kids stories of destruction and a narrative of violence rather than hope and love.
In a rare glimpse of Durga Vahini camps, we see young girls being trained in self-defense and going through general physical training. They are taught that being coy and looking pretty is NOT the definition of femininity. Most of them appear happy and condent. So far so good. At one point, we see one of the senior members telling the girls to perform well (in handling guns – which is disturbing independent of any other aspect of the film) unless they want to work only in the kitchen all their lives. This is juxtaposed with a speech given by a senior `pracharika’ who tells the girls to shun education, not to dream of a career, marry early etc. The clip ends with her telling the girls that though the constitution of India guarantees us (the women) equal rights, where will you hide your natural physical weakness? The idea of woman as a homemaker is both looked down upon and revered. This resonates with what we see around us today. A modern Indian woman must be educated but should find a man who holds more degrees (or a degree that is equally or more respectable), a woman must earn but definitely not more than her husband, also she must know how to maintain a house etc., she is free to choose but only within a sphere defined by others. Clearly neither education/career nor physical training leads to empowerment. What is needed is to build a culture that recognizes and values diverse forms of knowledge, including women’s knowledge. Such societies should find no reason to differentiate between what we call a “working woman” and a homemaker. It is essential, for emancipation of any downtrodden group/community in the society, that their domains of knowledge (which almost always serves as the primary source of their survival and livelihood) be respected and recognized. Only then can formal education and other ways of empowerment be effective. In some parts, it seems, that the film wanted to show how the girls at Durga Vahini are being sold the virtues of life of domesticity and repression. The girls, on the other hand, seem infused with energy and charged with confidence, albeit for all the wrong reasons. It is clear that the main aim of these camps is to fuel communal hatred and prepare these girls to justify, and if need be, indulge in violence against anyone who is “different”. This “different” category, as we know, includes anyone who doesn’t toe the Hindutva line but the worst of their wrath is directed towards muslims. It is heartbreaking to see these young girls talking with pride about possibilities of indulging in what can only be called as, in parlance of our times, terrorist activities much like Sadhvi Pragya of the Malegaon blasts fame. One of the scariest clips from the film is that of Durga Vahini trainess on their “graduation day” – walking on roads (of Aurangabad?), shouting slogans and spewing venom against other religious communities. An old man with a kind face and long grey beard looks on. In view of recent elections and the debate that it generated, it is not altogether odd to see this. The hindu right-wing finds its most staunch and coldly rational supporters in the middle class. What is disturbing to see is – how young they catch their foot-soldiers and how well-structured is their method of imbibing these young minds with hatred.
But I digress. The focus of the film is on women. The other part of the film is about nineteen miss India aspirants and the beauty industry that survives by turning young women into “beautiful bodies”. The cosmetic surgeons work passionately to change the personal histories of these bodies. They are cajoled into making small alterations to make them look more symmetric. They go through a series of procedures including skin lightening to make themselves fit for the market. This is the brutal face of capitalism where conformity and insecurity is sold in the name of modernity.
Experts can sit down and quantify the extent of harm caused by domestication and objectification of women, they can argue and disagree over which form of regression is worse or which one is a necessary evil for our struggle for “development” – but for a woman both of these are very real, tangible problems. The difference between them is never as stark as it seems in the film. What works against the film is not having a subjective voice to sum things up and bring the two aspects shown in the film under the same umbrella through some sort of understanding of underlying social forces. The Durga Vahini part is particularly undercooked. While it paints a rather grim but clear picture of how the fashion industry treats women as objects (At one point, one of the judges decides to cover the miss India participants from head to torso in a white cloth so that they can be judged based on the quality of their legs.), we are never presented with a coherent view on how RSS/Durga Vahini see women and their role in the society. What comes out well is how crude and unapologetic they are about their hatred for other religions. It leaves a lot unsaid on the topic of women – which is what the documentary is about. There is a lot of footage but very little information on that front. RSS is largely supported by upper castes (particularly brahmins), who are also among the front runners in female education. So to see the whole thing from an ancient point of view of education etc. would lead us to flawed conclusions. Their prejudices on women’s issues are subtle – they are not against educated but they do not want progressive.
This lack of unifying thought makes it hard to connect various facts being thrown at us in the form of different clips/stories – including the ones on female infanticide. Perhaps there is a thought – repression/exploitation of women – but that is too general a theme to bind things together. Also, then the film just becomes a part of the oft-repeated stance against patriarchy. Seeing women’s struggle as just being against the patriarchal values not only discredits feminist movements that are often also anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist, it also isolates women’s movements from a larger struggle for a just and equal society. The part of feminist movement that merged with the capitalist interest often heralds the stories of women in power positions (politicians or CEOs) as their success stories. However, for a majority of women, capitalism remains the main enemy which is why it is important for them to associate with other progressive forces against the system.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t move you. It works the best when it narrates personal stories of some of the girls and brings out the inherent contradictions in their positions. Prachi, a teacher/leader of the girls at the camp, is torn between taming the girls into domesticity and dedicating her life to sangh (RSS). We follow her to her home where her father insists that she must marry and have children because that’s the most important part of a woman’s life, her dharma. Ruhi – a miss India participant – who talks about being independent and about how she wants to be viewed as someone in control of their actions and mind, someone accomplished, a modern woman – sees no problem in being part of an industry that objectifies women at every step. A place where women are paraded in front of people who judge their “beauty” – the fact that this idea of beauty is mostly based on the shape of their breasts and the size of their hips only makes matters worse. The beauty industry, according to the film, is one of the rare modern industries where representation of women is on the higher side. It promises empowerment by providing them jobs and an illusion of modernity.
The strongest point of the film is how brilliantly it presents two different kinds of women who volunteer to become a part of a system of values that is built to crush them in the end.